As formal nominations for Indonesia’s upcoming presidential elections drew to a close last week, current Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) announced his new vice presidential candidate, Ma’ruf Amin. This nomination surprised many who expected former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin to be chosen. Jokowi’s decision to appoint the more conservative and controversial Ma’ruf instead of moderate candidates like Mahmodin or Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati indicates significant pressure from Jokowi’s coalition partners and conservative Muslim voters to override his reputation amongst the Muslim community as overly secularist and insufficiently religious. Asrul Sani, secretary general of one of Jokowi’s coalition partners confirmed that ‘by having Ma’ruf Amin on our side, they no longer can use the issue to corner Jokowi.’ While Ma’ruf’s nomination will bolster Jokowi’s chances against opponent Prabowo Subianto, it is essential to consider the impact that this decision might have on the future of Indonesia’s human rights and growing sectarian tension.
As Chairman of Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, Indonesia’s Ulema Council (MUI), and Supreme Leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, Ma’ruf Amin holds significant clout amongst Indonesia’s Muslim community, particularly conservatives who have frequently criticised Jokowi’s leadership. However, in addition to his influential positions, Ma’ruf also holds a notoriously conservative, ‘anti-human rights’ stance against religious minorities and the LGBT community. Notably, Ma’ruf has strongly supported controversial fatwas like the anti-secularism, pluralism and liberalism fatwa in 2005 and more recently, a MUI fatwa released in 2016 that supported criminalisation of LGBT activities. Human Rights Watch deputy director of Asia division, Phelim Kine, notes that ‘Amin has been central to some of the most intolerant elements of Indonesian contemporary religious and political culture, so fear of the negative impact he could have on the rights and safety of religious and gender minorities is well founded.’
Although the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies argues Ma’ruf has adopted a more progressive image since 2015, his human rights record does not bode well for a society that is already beset with growing sectarian tensions. In recent years, Indonesia’s civil society has seen a rise in intolerance towards religious minorities and LGBT individuals, evident in the targeted use of blasphemy law against leaders from the Gafatar religious community and former governor of Jakarta of Indonesia, Basuki Ahok Purnama. Just last week, a Buddhist Chinese Indonesian woman was charged with a 1.5 year prison sentence for complaining that a speaker making Islamic calls to prayer was too loud.
Ma’ruf’s nomination is particularly concerning considering Jokowi’s own inconsistent stance towards human rights abuses in Indonesia. Jokowi has frequently reaffirmed his commitment to human rights, most recently in the State of the Nation Address on the 16th of August where he promoted a ‘united, tolerant’ Indonesia. However, like previous verbal commitments to human rights, it is likely that these are mere words, unsupported by active policy changes. Jokowi has previously been known to acquiesce to political pressure from conservatives by delaying his commitment to ban child marriages in Sulawesi and additionally, in his noticeable silence regarding persecution of the LGBT community that resulted in the apprehension of 300 LGBT individuals in 2017 alone.
Nonetheless, it is important not to overstate Ma’ruf’s potential influence, particularly as the progressives in Jokowi’s administration will likely balance more conservative viewpoints. While it is unclear what impact Ma’ruf Amin’s conservatives views will have within Jokowi’s administration, Jokowi’s decision to nominate an often openly intolerant candidate is likely to only further inflame growing discrimination towards Indonesia’s minorities, particularly as the 2019 elections approach and intolerant, nationalist rhetoric is inevitably deployed by politicians in their pursuit of political leverage.
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